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Fight pernicious confirmation bias: 8 great ways to farm for dissent

I’m struck by how one psychological tendency — confirmation bias — is at the root of all the trends undermining our society. There is a solution: it’s called “farming for dissent.”

Confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” And as humans, we are all subject to it. Seeking out facts that confirm you are making the right decision is natural and feels normal. Searching for evidence that contradicts your belief is unnatural.

But confirmation bias is deadly right now.

If you want to believe that you don’t need a mask and you won’t get sick (“I don’t know anybody who got sick!”), that may feel reassuring. But it won’t keep you safe.

If you want to imagine that climate change isn’t real, you can find plenty of evidence . . . every time it snows.

Confirmation bias is bad enough under normal circumstances. But now that we’re shut up in our houses and sucking up social media that’s carefully designed to reinforce our biases in our own little filter bubbles, it’s worse.

Who convinced the rioters in DC to attack the capitol? They surrounded themselves (virtually, then physically) with people who believed the same distortions that they did. They insulated themselves from facts that contradicted those biases. And then they convinced themselves that of course they were right. Without confirmation bias, there would have been no riot.

Who created the superspreader event that was the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation event? Who imagined that masks were unnecessary at it? Who was responsible for Donald Trump and so many others getting COVID-19? People who only saw what they wanted to see. Confirmation bias led to those infections.

Do you think QAnon could even exist without confirmation bias? It thrives on selective evidence and rumor. It rejects, ignores, or twists facts that are inconvenient. Confirmation bias is the platform that sustains every conspiracy theory.

It doesn’t help that President Trump is the foremost proponent of confirmation bias. Trump only wants to see evidence that confirms his viewpoint — anyone contradicting it is banned from his presence. Then he spreads whatever rumors he hears that confirm his viewpoint. Confirmation bias is now the watchword of our leader.

And its not just Trump — most politicians operate in a similar way. He’s just made it into an art form.

If we keep believing what we want to believe — instead of what is true — we will make poor choices. And with the issues facing the world right now, that is the last thing we can do.

How to fight confirmation bias

If you only care about feeling good and don’t care about the actual truth, stop reading. I can’t help you. Please say as little as possible to others; you are part of the problem.

If, on the other hand, you would like to make decisions based on actual truth, then you need to adopt habits that support that. That requires work. But it is not impossible.

I do work with Netflix, one of the smartest and most profitable organizations in the world. When they make a decision, they publish the concept on their intranet and actively “farm for dissent” — seek out contradictory viewpoints. This makes their decision-making far stronger.

You can adopt “farming for dissent” in your own life to fight confirmation bias. Here are a few strategies for you:

  1. Be curious. When you read or hear something that contradicts a cherished belief . . . go towards it, not away from it. Ask “Is this true? What is the evidence?” Then read, or listen. Hold the contradictory idea in your mind, just for a moment. And consider changing your mind. Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence. (Never changing your mind is a sign of ignorance.)
  2. Consume science. Science is built on challenge — it’s why papers are peer reviewed. Science changes its perspective on things frequently, which bedevils observers, but that’s part of the design. More experiments lead to more facts, more evidence, and eventually, more insight. (That’s how we figured out that bacteria, not stress, causes ulcers, an insight that required doubting conventional wisdom.) Scientific thinking breaks down confirmation bias.
  3. Embrace diversity. You know who doesn’t believe the same thing that you do? People who don’t look like you do. Talk to somebody whose skin is a different color. If you’re old and experienced, ask questions of somebody who’s young and thinks differently. Make friends with weird accents from other countries. If you’re educated, talk to a laborer . . . and vice versa. If your friends aren’t diverse, your viewpoint is limited.
  4. Travel. It’s amazing how much you can learn by exposing yourself to other cultures. (You might have to put this one off for a few months.)
  5. Doubt your beliefs. Could your cherished belief be untrue? Every day, imagine something that you believe — that Jesus is the savior, that welfare creates laziness, that everyone should get a college degree — is completely wrong. Research it. Find out what people who disagree think. You don’t have to change your mind. But you should at least temporarily try on the belief that you might change your mind.
  6. Be somebody else. Try Indian food. Go to a Dominican heritage festival (later, after everybody has been vaccinated). Hang out with some lesbians. Attend a reggae concert. Go where you are in the minority. When you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are like each other — but unlike you — you gain empathy for other points of view.
  7. Befriend an alien. Right now, make friends with someone who disagrees with you. You’ll find out they’re human, and their perspective isn’t as hidebound as you think.
  8. Diversify your news. Get out of your social media bubble. Read Fox News or MSNBC — whichever seems more out there to you. The objective is not to be won over. It is to see how other people think and get facts access to facts you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

If we continue to bathe in confirmation bias, we will never learn anything new. No new ideas will emerge. The best ideas are born from seemingly contradictory viewpoints — think thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

So stop stewing in your own juices and expose yourself to things that challenge you. It’s the best way to grow.

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  1. Almost all of your examples illustrate confirmation bias found mostly on the right. Yet almost all of your solutions prescribe actions more commonly taken by the left.
    That’s not surprising. Everyone I know who acknowledges their confirmation bias and continually tries to overcome it is on the left or strives to be non-ideological.
    Of course, maybe I just don’t know enough people on the right. I’m married to one, but she’s a sample of one.

    1. Thank you for (sharing) the laugh. Humor IS the best medicine and a dash of irony never hurts.

      WRT your above comment, I love Josh’s self-awareness.

  2. Curious about the expertise bias where some believe that the issue is settled. President Obama used it a lot paraphrasing “all experts agree” when it was clear to many experts that “no, we do not all agree.” This happens outside of the “flat-earth” topics, where all experts NOW do agree.

    For example, with masks. Experts agree that the generic mask does not protect the wearer and does not pose a danger of low oxygen/high CO2 and other interesting, but specious arguments, but we do not agree that it provides protection to others. Is it possible in some situations?, yes; is it proven?, no. Like much of the COVID crisis, the questions that we would like to know to prove it or deem it likely just have not been answered. And that is merely one example in one science-related topic where experts honestly disagree. And this one and many (most?) are separate from politics or political leanings.

    In my long academic, government, and private industry career, I have run across fine folks and nuts of all flavors. For example, I know folks on the left that reject science and folks on the right that make great science. I find generalizations too crude to be of use, although I am human and use them and other bad tools too often.

  3. Excellent summary of strategies, thank you Josh. Had fun reading them in various orders concluding that adopting only one could lessen division and anxieties. Was amazed how switching from Fox to CNN and back during the January 6 riots broadened my perspective of what was happening and exposed the underlying thought currents. The buddha reportedly said something like ‘… don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances. Find out for yourself what is true and virtuous.”

  4. Great point, strong agree overall.

    Nitpick on the solutions – neither MSNBC nor Fox is really a suitable recommendation for this purpose. Each is too far into it’s own CB bubble to reliably present contrary facts; this is particularly true of Fox which does it systematically on purpose, but is observable at MSNBC as well. Better would be to recommend not-the-TV, like legit newspapers with predictable slants –> their podcasts, for people who want a different medium?

    I’m not sure I buy CB as a lynchpin to CTs. I recently learned the term “apophenia” to describe the familiar concept of ‘finding patterns in random data’. This seems more relevant?

  5. Josh, I appreciate the specific ways you note to fight our shared confirmation bias, and these are all useful for those who seek change in one of more dimensions of their lives — political, economic, social, personal, other. But many do not and like Paul S. with people he knows, I have also had a similar experience with college students, many of whom find such action ideas interesting but not personally congenial. Perhaps later experience changes that? The reason that most college academics are “liberal” is less tied to politics (although that is also true) than it is to the desire to know and understand reality. Even most politically conservative professors pursue that goal.

  6. A very useful article. (But then, most of your postings are!)

    I have been encouraging people to visit the Associated Press site. Their business incentives ensure that their news is pretty centrist. It’s a good reminder of what the news actually is, and if a story that you read elsewhere isn’t at AP, then odds are very good that it’s simply not true.

    Keep it up!

  7. Thanks for these tips, Josh.

    Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email summaries of the news with added historical context is broadening my understanding of issues in a way no other sources can. She also gives regular FB live history/current events lessons.

  8. Josh, you do realize that Dilbert creator Scott Adams had been (probably still is) a huge Trump fan?

    He didn’t like an answer Trump gave at one debate – a “layup” on racism – so claims Trump lost his vote. I doubt that, given his vlog conversations since.

    He believes people (himself excluded) are “meat puppets” – easily manipulated with the right messaging.

    I used to strongly object to that – believing most folks were rather thoughtful and rational vs a receptacle for whatever fills a void.

    Maybe that still holds true for the majority (after all, the Dems picked Biden and Trump lost a significant share of the vote), but the past four years has shaken my concept of mankind.

    I used to think the early 1900s with movements led by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and later, Mao, were anomalies rooted in ignorance (lack of education, lack of information) and desperate economic times.

    I now see how easily society can slip into authoritarian rule.

    There has to be a willingness in broad swaths of society to accept what they are being told.

    Arguably, the US is still the best place in the world to live. You’d not think so listening to / reading a significant proportion of the major news media content today (e.g. why would Project 1619 get serious airing and promotion by NYTs?) – it is NOT just far-left or far-right media anymore.

    Yes, confirmation bias is one big problem.

    But, it seems a great many are too willing to let go of some basic level of logic and good sense judgement.

    In the end, only the choir you are preaching to would be heeding your advice.

    Perhaps this audience needs to go one more step – to be more proactive in engaging and persuading others – starting with encouraging a diverse source of media consumption.